Can 23 and me identify the mutant entrepreneurship gene? Hope so.

Another lovely synopsis from this week’s visit to the Raleigh, NC, this time for a discussion with 25 student entrepreneurs and their faculty/coaches at the terrific NC State “Garage” for startups.


by Beryl Pittman, NC State Entrepreneurship Initiative

This article first appeared on the Entreprenuership Initiatives News Section

“There’s a mutant strand in our DNA that says ‘I just have to do this.’” And with that, Bob Dorf summed up his belief of why some people become entrepreneurs. Dorf, a successful serial entrepreneur, author, and professor, spoke yesterday to a group of about 25 NC State students at The Garage, an Entrepreneurship Initiative-sponsored campus facility that provides resources for student start-ups

Dorf began his story by recalling his parents’ dismay when, in 1972, he left a great job to become an entrepreneur. “They wanted me to see a psychiatrist,” he said, laughing. And he realizes now that they may have had good reason. “I had sent out several hundred beautiful cards, announcing my business. And then on the big day, I put on a tie, drank my coffee, and went to my office – ready for the calls to start coming in.”

“Instead, I stared at the phone till 11:30 when the phone finally rang,” he continued. “It was my mom. Very quickly I learned that sales is the Number One job of any entrepreneur: to investors, landlords, partners – and most of all, to customers.”

With this realization, Dorf developed an approach to entrepreneurship that governs every venture, every book, every presentation: nobody’s opinion of your product matters like the opinion of your customers. “You’ve got to drive that into every element of your business, not just product development, because it de-risks the start-up.” Dorf emphasized the need to talk first to customers about the problem, not the solution. “You’ve got to find out how serious the problem is, how often it bothers your potential customer. Is your product a must-have or a possibility?”

Dorf also pointed out that any idea that a potential entrepreneur thinks of has probably been tried “20 or 30 times before.” His suggestion is “to become the customer. Spend at least a day ‘googling’ any way possible to find out more about what’s available as it relates to your product. Print each screen. Put the pages on the wall and organize them.” And then, he said, “Ask yourself ‘Where do I fit into this ecosystem?’”

Responding to a student’s question about what he learned from failing, Dorf responded, “The importance of balancing self-confidence with needing the help of others.” He pointed out that self-confidence is both an entrepreneur’s greatest asset and greatest liability. “Always hire your polar opposite,” he advised. “You don’t have to be friends though you do need to respect each other.”

But, if you’ve got the entrepreneurial bug, you don’t have to act on it immediately. “Falling in love with your start-up doesn’t follow a schedule,” Dorf explained. “But you do need to put yourself in a position to make it happen.” To that end, Dorf suggests working at a strong start-up with a well-respected entrepreneur.

Much of Bob Dorf’s experience, along with that of successful entrepreneur Steve Blank, is reflected in their book, The Start-up Owner’s Manual. It provides a step-by-step guide through the customer development process. Dorf, who was in the Triangle for the CED Venture Conference, closed with advice to read Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs and to visit and the website of the Kauffman Foundation for lots of free resources.


Which of these has proven most important in your startup? What did I miss?


Gee, wish I’d said that(oops, I did): Customer Discovery rules… fast

Here’s a great, short Customer Development primer extracted from a speech I made yesterday at North Carolina’s cram-packed, high energy CED Tech Venture Conference, an annual fete organized by the State’s Center for Entrepreneurial Development.  It’s a short read and a great summary of the rules!

8 ways to build a business around your cool and awesome product

By Laura Baverman

This article first appeared on Upstart Business Journal

The UpTake: Sure, a great product is what woos customers. But learning about those customers and building the product around them is what makes that magic happen and what builds a successful business too. And that’s why startup gurus Steve Blank and Bob Dorf spend so much time preaching about it. Here are eight good reminders about building a business, not just a product.

We hear a lot about products these days and about the perfectionists that create them. But startup gurus Bob Dorf and Steve Blank are here to remind us that success is not so dependent on the product, but about whether—and just how badly—people want it.

And if people want it bad enough, then you’ve got a business. Dorf, who co-authored 2012’sThe Startup Owner’s Manual with Blank, shared their teachings with a crowd in Raleigh, North Carolina gathered yesterday afternoon for the annual Center for Entrepreneurial Development Tech Venture Conference.

We know this might be a repeat for some, but take it as a reminder that your product obsession should only go so far. It has to make business sense too.

Here’s the gist, in eight key points:

So you have an idea for a product. Start by recognizing your business is so much more than that product. It’s about solving a problem for your customers. But on day one, you have no customers. So acknowledge that you don’t know anything about them.

Think through how you’re going to search for answers to the problem. How are you going to reach these potential customers? Who could they be? Be as specific as possible. These customers should be your best, the people who will love your product so much that they’ll tell everyone about it.

When you do reach them, talk about the problem. Don’t sell. Just listen. Dorf calls it ‘the give-a-crap test.’ Find out if anyone gives a crap about the problem your product solves.

Once you’ve settled on the product, don’t write a business plan. Instead, follow a model like Alexander Osterwalder’s, which divides the new business into nine labeled blocks on a sheet of paper. The blocks target value proposition, pricing strategy, channel strategy, customer development, partnerships and more. Your goal should be to have solid answers in all nine blocks to have a prayer of creating something repeatable, scalable and profitable.

Test every element of your business with agility and speed, and without spending any money. If one part of the nine isn’t working, change something. The word pivot doesn’t just refer to an entire business model shift, it’s an action that should happen all the time at young startups.

Don’t test your idea with friends or family. You’ll only get positive feedback. And don’t pay interns or market researchers to do the tests and talk to customers. Do it yourself. Get to know your customers and build relationships with them.

Once you have a solution to the problem, create a minimum viable product. This is a very rough site or demo that gives your potential customers some idea of what you plan to do. Include as few features as possible. If feedback is positive and orders or sales come in, then your value proposition might stand the test.

Delay outside funding as long as possible by testing, scaling and testing again. The longer you go without taking capital, the more equity you’ll build as you grow the company and the more equity you’ll have when you do decide to bring on investors.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The only opinions that matter are those of your customers…

‘Serial entrepreneur’ says customers come first — even for high-tech startups
‘Customers first’ is the mantra of Bob Dorf, serial entrepreneur and co-author of the best-seller “The Startup Owner’s Manual: The Step-By-Step Guide for Building a Great Company.”
By Scott Meacham

This article first appeared on

With technology today, entrepreneurs can build almost anything. But there is not an entrepreneur alive who can manufacture customers.

Among startups, the temptation is great to focus on product, technology and financing when the number one thing that causes most companies to fail is the lack of people who are able and willing to buy at a price that is profitable.

There is no business unless what the entrepreneur is creating solves a serious problem — a problem that involves something significant like love, money, house, or job — for a large group of customers.

That’s the mantra of Bob Dorf, serial entrepreneur and author, along with Steve Blank, of the best-seller “The Startup Owner’s Manual: The Step-By-Step Guide for Building a Great Company.”

“Before you start writing code or building a prototype, or doing whatever it is that you are going to do,” Dorf says, “put at least equal energy into talking to customers, figuring out who they are going to be, how you are going to get them, the problems they have that you can solve, and what they are willing to pay.”

Dorf will be the keynote speaker Oct. 11 at Oklahoma’s Entrepreneurial Summit, a new event that combines an exciting program created specifically for entrepreneurs with the popular Who Wants to Be an Entrepreneur event for college students.

An adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Columbia Business School in New York City who teaches entrepreneurs and coaches companies from Mexico to Russia, Dorf’s message to entrepreneurs is to not talk to friends and family — but use friends and family to gain introductions to people who are one step removed — to get honest, even painful, feedback, to prove or disprove all the elements of the business plan.

We’ve invited Dorf to talk to Oklahoma’s best and brightest entrepreneurs and our student “want-to-be’s” because we think his message is spot-on.

The effervescence of the 1990s has long fizzled out. In today’s economic climate, investors want to see marketing traction before they write checks. They want to know that a solution is unique, repeatable and makes real customers’ eyes light up.

From Ardmore to Ponca City, entrepreneurial Oklahomans have the ideas, intellectual capacity, and tenacity to start successful companies. On Oct. 11 at the Entrepreneurial Summit, Bob Dorf will teach them the importance of reaching out to customers.

Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state appropriations from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology. Contact Meacham at